Why a phased approach to masking is working for one big university
From January to early March, as positive COVID-19 cases waned across the United States, colleges and universities took advantage of new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to lift mask requirements. Some made them completely optional while others took a more guarded approach, keeping mandates intact in classrooms and other high-traffic areas.
Even with cases now almost nonexistent on its campus, the University of Kentucky is still following the science and taking a cautious approach, unusual in a state where acceptance of vaccinations and masking remains low. While leaders at UK have allowed for masks to be removed in certain areas such as student centers and residences, they have kept them on in others as they take a phased approach to reopening. That approach, rather than the total removal of masks, has one major benefit—if positive cases suddenly rise, they can change course without hesitation.
“Could we pivot? The infrastructure is still in place,” says Robert DiPaola, the acting Provost who was the former Dean of its College of Medicine. “Our highest priority is the health and safety of the campus. If we felt the risk was significantly increased based on different metrics, we would pivot. Would it be easy, given that we’ve already loosened some things up? No, it’s not going to be easy. It’s just human nature. Everybody’s very eager to go. But I applaud all the people on this campus. They really seem to understand in an incredible way why they’re here; why we are here.”
And that is to keep the learning and operations going, regardless of whether masks are required or not. The framework of guidance and messaging put in place by President Eli Capiluoto two years ago, its creation of emergency teams and its willingness to listen to several different leadership groups—from faculty to staff to students—have put UK and other universities in stronger positions to make sound decisions two years into this pandemic. At the center of its operations is its START team (Screening, Testing and Tracing, to Accelerate Restart and Transition), which is headed by DiPaola and still meets regularly. Any new or emerging variants—such as delta and omicron last year—are discussed, and evidence and transmissibility are assessed to determine just how open the university should be.
“We’ve all hit a bunch of challenges, and for the most part with few exceptions, we’ve handled it really well here,” DiPaolo said. “We’re certainly in a better place with COVID. But it was a lot of people stepping up. We had extensive communications efforts so that the campus really, really understood the why in all of this, and that was really key. Why are we doing this? Why do they need to get vaccinated? We had really rigorous policies along the way.”
The emergence of the BA.2 variant—nicknamed stealth—bears watching because of its surge in Europe and in the United States, where it has gone from just 4% of new cases two months ago to more than 25% now, according to CDC data. The state of Kentucky, which has seen an almost unending infusion of new cases over two years, has watched new positives rise 11% in the past two weeks. Although hospitalizations remain down for now, the trend is concerning.
It is part of the reason why UK, which is still looking to further open when it can, hasn’t gotten past that initial stage. “We still have a mask mandate in classrooms,” DiPaola says. “We could make the mask mandate optional. But what we decided to do is do it in the first stage, because people are still nervous. Our classrooms are areas where people need to go, and an instructor is required to go to the classroom. So we tried to divide it up instead. In those bigger, required areas where there’s going to be a larger gathering, we would leave the mask mandate there in the first phase, whereas the more optional areas around the campus—dining halls, Student Center, athletics—we would open that up to be mask-optional.”
DiPaola says as rates go down on campus, there will be assessments done by the teams to determine whether an advancement to the next stage can happen. At some point and as the nation reaches that endemic phase of the virus, there will be a further reopening, but don’t expect masks to completely disappear.
“We’re going to be living with the concept of knowing there are respiratory viruses out there,” he says. “In the future, there will be variants. The way we would probably look at it is, we need to have a basic set of recommendations similar to the concept of washing your hands on a regular basis to reduce the amount of contact spread of colds. Masking, for instance, will be part of our lives for a long time to come. There may be guidelines in situations where you’re in areas where there is a variant where you will need to bring your mask with you, similar to bringing an umbrella and having it in your car if there is going to be heavy rain.”
One of the keys to success at Kentucky has been its communications strategy. “The messaging is incredibly important, and how we frame it, we’ve been very transparent,” he says. “For example, we did require for those that are unvaccinated that they would need to test on a regular basis, and we’ve been doing weekly testing in those individuals. What that’s done is it encouraged people to say, if I get vaccinated, I don’t need to go get tested. But the reason I’m getting vaccinated and not getting tested is that I’m also helping out the community in terms of safety. The thing that’s very exciting to me to learn over these last couple of years with COVID is the culture and kind of innate heart you see in students, staff and faculty. People really care. And that messaging goes a long way.”
In turn, Kentucky has been quick to respond to the needs of its students and other populations on campus, a key during the pandemic when many have struggled with isolation, continual masking and uncertainty.
“We need to pay a lot of attention to the mental health of not only our students, but everyone,” DiPaola says. “It is clear that the data is showing a sharp increase in mental health concerns and suicide risk. Some people call it another pandemic. We have really intensified our student advising efforts, having those available to students on a very regular basis in person or on Zoom. We’ve also increased the training of those advisors. We need to understand how to identify their concerns, when to refer them and how to refer them. Universities around the country are paying attention to that, and I can’t emphasize enough how important it will be.”